Photo: Oscilloscope

Joel Potrykus’ third feature, The Alchemist Cookbook, further cements the writer-director’s status as one of the most interesting and unusual new voices in American independent film. A darkly funny chamber piece set at a secluded trailer home somewhere in Michigan, it centers on an alienated young man (Ty Hickson of Gimme The Loot) as he attempts to summon a demon. Like Potrykus’ earlier films, Ape and the superb Buzzard, it’s a portrait of a loser increasingly consumed by his fantasies of getting back at the world.

But what The A.V. Club wanted to talk to Potrykus about was food: the junk food, messy dinners, and cheap sodas that seem to be such an important part of his characters’ lives. He’s devoted extended scenes to a plate of spaghetti, a game played with Bugles, and a man daring himself to eat cat food. The A.V. Club spoke to Potrykus over the phone on the day The Alchemist Cookbook (which is also available for rent or purchase online) began playing in select theaters.

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Joel Potrykus: Finally I get to talk about something a little outside of, “Tell us about your release strategy.” The literal meat and potatoes.

The A.V. Club: When you felt those early pangs of a desire to make films, was there some part of you that thought, “I’m going to be the guy with the food?”

JP: Some of my favorite moments are when people eat. Down By Law, when Tom Waits and John Lurie are starved and have escaped from jail and are waiting on Roberto Benigni to tell them the coast is clear, they go into that little Italian restaurant and [Nicoletta Braschi] has prepared this huge thing of spaghetti and wine and bread. I’m always like, “That’s the best meal in the entire world.”

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And it’s in black and white, and it still looks amazing. For me, for whatever reason, food always looks so good in a scene. I want to eat what they eat. But subconsciously, I’m not a filmmaker that wants the audience to feel hungry or wants to gross them out or make them feel uncomfortable. I’ve never consciously thought about it. I love watching characters eat. It just so happens that characters in my movies don’t have good table manners.

AVC: Is this interview going to forever ruin your creative process?

JP: No, no, every Q&A [for Buzzard], someone said, “Tell us about the spaghetti scene.” It just so happens now that when I am writing an eating scene, I am thinking about the Q&A first and that’s just what it’s going to be for the rest of my life. “Oh, I can’t wait for people to ask about this eating scene.” But I can’t not put them in my scripts.

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Buzzard (Image: Screengrab)

AVC: We have an ongoing conversation here at the office about why certain kinds of foods seem to look so much more appetizing on screen. Steaming foods tend to look better.

JP: Because steaming—you can smell that. You know what that smells like. And weirdly enough, one of my biggest regrets with Buzzard is that when Marty takes the lid off the spaghetti plate, there is not steam. I’ve always wished when he popped the lid off, that it was steaming. Because when you see that, you do sense that a little more. When you see steam coming off food, hits your nose in a way a movie really can’t. Chungking Express, I would always want to eat there.

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AVC: But part of what’s appealing about the scene in Buzzard is that it’s an unremarkable plate of spaghetti. It’s not a great chef’s Michelin-starred pasta. It arrives cold.

JP: Yeah, that’s what we were kind of going for. It’s not right out of the pot spaghetti. It’s room service spaghetti, not exactly from a restaurant. It doesn’t get any bread with it. He gets a bag of Doritos, and that kind of implies that this is not a Michelin restaurant. Just throw this in the microwave, heat it up for 20 seconds, and take it up to the 18th floor.

AVC: There are Doritos in The Alchemist Cookbook as well. There’s a lot of gas station food. Is there reason why gas station food is what you think of first?

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JP: Not to sound cliché, but you write what you know. I’m a vegetarian, but I’m not a vegetarian who eats kale and asparagus. I’m kind of a junk food vegetarian. Like macaroni and cheese and Doritos. That’s what I rely on, so that’s the first thing to come to my head. But obviously there is a certain kind of immaturity that comes along with the guy who is 35 and eating Bugles. It’s just funny to see older people, not teenagers or kids, eating some of these snacks. So, you know just when you say Doritos, people kind of laugh and smile a little bit. Something about Doritos. It just has a bad rap in this country.

AVC: Well, they’re messy foods.

JP: Doritos are funny. Bugles are funny. Gas station food is funny for some reason. There’s something about a burrito when it comes out of a wrapper that is so funny in comparison to what a burrito actually should be. The fact that they’ve taken a big beautiful Mexican food and condensed it into a little handheld, bite-sized thing that has a clear wrapper. That’s funny. And it says so much to me. It’s just totally America, a burrito in a plastic wrapper. They find a way into the movies because I’m fascinated by them.

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AVC: It’s a very sort of banal, petty temptation. You walk into a gas station and you’re tempted by a little bag of chips.

JP: It’s exciting, though! That moment when you’re on a road trip at a gas station. Do I get ranch, nacho cheese, jalapeño, or buffalo? You don’t usually get to choose between all these silly things. You get guacamole-flavored Doritos. That’s exciting, that’s a thrill. It’s what people can look forward to on a road trip. “I can’t wait to get those spicy buffalo blue cheese XL Doritos. Mmmm.”

And that world is not most people’s normal world, so in a way, maybe it is cinematic. It’s something you treat yourself to. Maybe most movies are junk food. I don’t know.

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AVC: Well, you’re substituting for the audience’s gaze a world more in harmony with their desires.

JP: [Laughs] You nailed it. You nailed it, man.

The Alchemist Cookbook (Photo: Oscilloscope)

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AVC: In The Alchemist Cookbook, there’s a scene you’ve probably been asked about in every single interview for this film. The scene in which some cat food is eaten. By a non-cat.

JP: [Laughs.] Yeah.

AVC: Let me ask the obvious question of whether it’s real cat food.

JP: I could never betray the actor’s trust by saying that. I think that he needs to answer that question of whether it’s real or not.

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AVC: It’s sort of like the baby in Eraserhead. You’ll never say how it was really made.

JP: Exactly. I don’t want to know. I just want to picture a little bulbous baby under that blanket. But I will say during the Q&As, I have eaten cat food at the Q&A just because I’ve dared audience members to come up and eat real cat food with me. And it’s incredibly disgusting.

AVC: What does it taste like?

JP: The first time we ever did it in New York, [the audience member] said, “It tastes like I’d eaten a pack of cigarettes and then ate a pile of human shit.” Those were her words. She was a polite older woman, maybe 65. I totally agree. And I have a [strong] gag reflex so every time I eat it, I do gag just like Cortez in the movie. I gag just as hard as he does. It’s disgusting.

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AVC: But I assume you’re trying non-meat-based cat food?

JP: Well, I’ll eat fish, so I make sure it’s always tuna cat food. That day, I pick it out before each screening. Someone once brought a can of venison cat food to the screening and dared me to eat it and I said I don’t eat venison anymore. Unfortunately I eat cat food, but not venison, so that kind of sums up my dietary habits right there.

AVC: Chips and soda have a place in our everyday lives. But cat food. Where does that come from?

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JP: I still am really, really immature. I still hang out with a lot of the guys I went to high school with. Same group. And ever since high school we’ve dared each other to do stupid stuff. And never at any point in our lives did we say, “We are too old for this.” It just has never happened. So we just do all these silly things, including daring each other to eat disgusting things or get a football kicked in your face to see if you can take it. So it really comes from immaturity. It started out as a Mad Max reference, when he eats dog food. Watching it, I always wondered if that is okay to eat and if it tastes okay. So it’s a combination of Mad Max and the immature life I continue to live right now.

The Road Warrior (Image: Screengrab)

AVC: You do seem to associate your characters with Mad Max. Ty Hickson’s character wears a leg brace, I didn’t pick up on the food.

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JP: Yeah, The Road Warrior. He’s just eating that dog food out of the can. Ever since I was a little kid, I was like, “Wow, if the world goes to shit, you can find dog food or cat food and you’ll be fine.” I was always obsessed with that. Epecially since in the first Mad Max, he’s out in a field eating a peanut butter and honey sandwich or something like that. He’s gone from the domestic bliss of peanut butter to the wasteland version of dog food out of the can. I loved that.

AVC: What are your other go-to scenes of people eating?

JP: There’s A Clockwork Orange.

AVC: Right! His mouth at the end…

JP: It’s a few things. First off, it’s the scene when Alex is cleaned up and he’s in his robe and he’s literally got a plate of spaghetti. And that’s directly where [the scene in Buzzard] comes from. And the end of A Clockwork Orange, when he’s being fed by the government. The food goes in and he’s got his mouth wide open and it takes one second before he starts chewing with his mouth wide open. I just think that’s the funniest, most amazing thing. He’s chomping away like a little kid.

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What it comes down to really is, I think that when you are in a room with someone and you’re eating with them, they’re on their best behavior. They’re polite. Because eating is kind of a gross thing. And I’m obsessed with what people do, how they eat when no one else is around. It’s almost like going to the bathroom for me. A very private thing. And I was driving with my girlfriend somewhere, and there was this girl at a bus stop by herself eating leftovers out of a Tupperware and I just I said, “Look at her. Look how polite she’s eating, with her mouth closed. And a napkin. She doesn’t realize that anyone is looking at her, but she’s still so polite.”

If I’m by myself eating, it’s just disgusting. The mouth is open, there is no napkin, there’s slurping. It’s disgusting because I’m by myself. So I’m just really obsessed with how people behave when they don’t think anyone is looking. Are they still the same person as when they’re around other people? And that’s really what the root of all this food thing comes down to, if you see a character eating by themselves in one of my movies.

AVC: Eating can be very sensual, but it’s also completely essential. You can go on either side. You can be wolfing something down or savoring it. And those reflect very different needs.

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JP: I think my characters don’t eat out of necessity. It’s a more sensual thing. [Laughs.] My characters fuck their meals.

A Clockwork Orange (Image: Screengrab)

AVC: Are there depictions of food or eating in movies that you find unconvincing, or that ticks you off?

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JP: In a weird way, I’m always bothered when characters don’t eat. I feel like if something happened and a big studio said, “We want you to make the next James Bond movie.” For me, it would absolutely be the movie in between the chasing and the shooting where James would be like, “Oh, I gotta get a double cheeseburger.” I think that would be amazing. Why does James Bond go to Burger King? Does he have to go to the bathroom? These are the things I really want to see. Like in Fast And Furious, shooting through a drive-thru. That’s what bugs me, when characters don’t eat. I want to see them as humans.

Other than that, any time I see a character by themselves and they’re eating, and their mouth is closed and their elbows are off the table and they’re alone, I know it’s because there’s a crew and a director watching them right now. You can feel people watching this character, even though they’re supposed to be alone. People alone at the dinner table do not put the napkin in their lap. Or maybe I’m just a caveman that’s seeing the world through different eyes.

AVC: Well, in your movies your protagonists are generally loners. So how do you get an actor to basically act like they’re alone?

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JP: Usually I just have to straight-up tell them. “We’re not here. You’re by yourself. Go to town on that food right now. No one is looking at you. Keep repeating that. You’re alone, you’re alone. Let’s get a little bit sloppy, a little bit messy. Nobody’s going to tell you to wipe your mouth, to chew with your mouth closed.” I really have to walk them through that process. I think that working with Joshua Burge at this point, he knows what I’m looking for with a food scene. He gets it. But otherwise, if I’m working with someone outside of one of my best friends, I really do have to tell them over and over, “You’re by yourself. No one’s watching. Don’t be polite. Let’s get gross here.”

AVC: My favorite moments in your films are those where I have no idea how you could know have known how long this take would run before you started rolling.

JP: That’s something that I usually don’t know going into it. A lot of times I’ll set up the camera and we’ll play this scene out, but then I won’t say cut. I’ll see what the actor does after the written part of that scene is over with. And for me, that’s the most exciting, interesting stuff. It’s stuff that I can’t write. In the spaghetti scene in Buzzard, [in the script] it just says, “Marty takes a few bites of a huge plate of $20 spaghetti.” But when we were shooting, I told Josh, “Just take a few bites. I’ll say cut at some point.” I didn’t know he was going to let it fall over his chest and then he was going to be really shoveling it in with bites that big. And I took a step back, and everyone was looking at me to say cut. And in my head I was like, “This is my favorite scene. I didn’t write this.” It was not supposed to be a five-minute shot, but Josh kept shoveling it in and I didn’t say “cut.”

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That’s a scene that, in a studio film, is not going to make the movie. Or just a fraction of that scene is going to make the cut. But for me, without having to answer to anybody, on set I know that I am not cutting this down at all. Those are the best moments, when you can really surprise yourself. So after watching him for five minutes with a smile on my face, I just whispered, “Now give us a big laugh.” And he goes, “Ha!” and I said “cut” and I gave him a hug. And those are the most beautiful things. That comes from not having to answer to anybody else about the length of your movie or how things progress.